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Five for a Friday #16

A young Mr. Brown.

A young Mr. Brown.

Five Things I Learned About Education After 20 Years of Teaching

I landed my first full-time job in February 1995.  I was hired by Soledad Enrichment Action (SEA), a non-profit organization serving severely at-risk high school students who were expelled from their home schools and/or on probation with the department of corrections. Even though SEA currently operates several charter schools throughout L.A. County, back when I was employed with SEA in 1995, they had yet to receive charter school status. I worked at one of the sites located in the basement of a baptist church in the city of Compton, CA.  After 18 months at SEA, I decided to follow the traditional classroom teacher path.

And so in August of 1996, I began my journey as a traditional classroom teacher.

For the next four years, I worked as a math teacher–two years teaching 7th and 8th grade math in the Inglewood Unified School District, and two years teaching algebra and geometry at Malibu High School.  From there, I took a one-year hiatus from the K-12 environment and worked at Loyola Marymount University as the coordinator of the university’s tutoring center (in addition to teaching part-time as a math instructor).  The pull of full-time teaching grew stronger, and when the new school year began, I returned to the classroom, this time teaching math at Campbell Hall (a private Episcopal school in North Hollywood).  My wife and I relocated 60 miles away in order to start our family and buy a home, and after four years of teaching high school math at Campbell Hall, I worked for a brief period as an adjunct professor of math and English at a local for-profit school of technology.  That period ended in 2006 when I was finally hired at my current location, Crafton Hills College.

This summer will mark my tenth year at Crafton Hills College, and my twentieth year in the teaching field.

It’s been a few years since my last Five for a Friday blog post.  So today, on this Friday of Valentine’s Day weekend, I felt it appropriate to write about my oldest and dearest love: teaching.

Here is a list of the five things I learned after working the last two decades as an educator.

1.  America’s system of public education is not entirely broken…but it’s bent pretty badly.  Despite all of the problems with our country’s public education system, we still have around 3 million students who graduate public high school each year.  EACH YEAR.  That’s a lot of graduates for a country of approximately 320 million people.  But this leads to the inevitable discussion of quality over quantity.  The only way for a system to pump out that many graduates is to adopt a factory type of model, and important qualities are always lost when things are mass produced.  I can produce a much higher quality hamburger than McDonald’s.  We know that the ideal situation would be for one teacher to holistically teach one single student for an entire year using her own well-researched mehtods customized specifically for that student.  Of course that would produce a high-quality education, but that is an extreme exaggeration to imagine.  However, shouldn’t it also be an extreme exaggeration to imagine one classroom teacher doing her best to teach (or manage) a group of 35 students using a commercially contrived, universally adopted curriculum?

2.  High-quality education is segregated socioeconomically.  Many people like to believe that public schools are failing.  The news outlets are full of stories of low test scores and dismal math, science, and reading rankings when compared with other countries.  But the truth is that public education actually works very well…but only for students in high socioeconomic areas.  For example, a year ago, the National Center for Educational Statistics (NCES) published the results of a study showing that American children scored higher in reading than any other children IN THE WORLD…but only if those American children were in schools with less than a 25% poverty rate.  Students in wealthy neighborhoods have wealthy families whose taxes create wealthy schools.  The broken and toxic school buildings of Detroit’s public school system would never exist in Beverly Hills.  Wealth provides a family with much more than cash.  Wealth provides children clean, safe, and stress-free environments.  Poverty provides children dilapidated and unsafe environments filled with mental, physical, and emotional dangers.  Wealth provides opportunities to network with powerful and influential people.  Poverty provides opportunities to network with desperate and despondent people.  Wealth provides access.  Poverty restricts access.

3.  The one solution that actually worked to close the achievement gap NATIONWIDE was dismantled, and the reason had nothing to do with funding.  Last year, the journalists at the radio show This American Life produced a two-part broadcast called “The Problem We All Live With.”  You can listen to the broadcast and read a transcript of the show by clicking HERE for part one and HERE for part two.  Go ahead and listen.  You can come back here later.  I’ll wait.
Did you listen?  Good.  I never felt like crying over a radio show before listening to that.  Can you imagine that?  Desegregation as a tool to cut the achievement gap in half.  CUT IN HALF…NATIONWIDE.  Even though the Brown v. Board of Education case declared racial segregation of schools unconstitutional in 1954, it never really took care of the self-segregation that happens within neighborhoods.  All of this residential segregation eventually maintained the previously established homogeneous schools.  So (and here’s the key), in 1971 the Supreme Court ruled that school districts could use bussing as a tool to address the stark differences between predominately white schools and predominantly (primarily) black schools.  Of course, many parents in white communities fought it.  There were fears that black kids would reduce the academic rigor of white schools, while increasing the crime and general bad behavior.  But here’s the thing…over the next seventeen years, everything worked.  There’s incredible data–longitudinal data– that shows how well bussing worked.  One of the reporters, Nikole Hannah-Jones (who was a product of the bussing program just like me), had one of the best lines in the broadcast.  She said: “I think I’m so obsessed with this because we have this thing that we know works, that the data shows works, that we know is best for kids, and we will not talk about it.  And it’s not even on the table.”  The broadcast goes on to report on small examples of integration programs (both intentional and, surprisingly, unintentional programs) that still exist today producing amazing results.  It’s simply incredible that seventeen years of cold hard evidence is still not enough to make the right choices for our children.

4.  A college degree is still the best chance for most people to improve their lives.  Back in the 1950’s, Americans lived in an economy that allowed most hard workers to achieve the middle class dream (home ownership, family vacation, savings account, job with a retirement plan).  This was possible with or without a college education. High school graduates who were not on the path toward college, could easily use their high school diploma to find work someplace.  Today, it’s a different economy.  It is less likely to move from one economic class to another.  It’s harder for low-income families to move to the middle class, and it’s much harder for middle class families to advance to upper class living.  Today, a person is more likely to remain in the economic class into which they were born.  We are transitioning (or we have already transitioned) from a manufacturing-based economy to an information-based economy.  With more automation and fewer jobs at manufacturing plants, students with high school degrees are going to be stuck with lower and lower-paying service jobs.  However, study after study shows that the best shot a person has is with a college degree.  A college education is becoming (or has already become) the baseline for entry to most jobs in this economy.

5.  The public school K-12 teacher has become a student’s last hope to gain some much needed non-academic basics.  This leads to parents expecting the school system to help raise their kids.  One time back in 1996, I had a student who was thinking of ending her life.  She believed that there was absolutely no hope for her because she lived in the heart of Compton California, she was assigned to her first probation officer before age seventeen, she got kicked out of public school, and she was struggling to finish her G.E.D. program.  Since then, I’ve had students who were targets of drive-by shootings, students who were hospitalized for attempted suicides, students who were struggling to graduate even though they were homeless, and, of course, hundreds of students who simply needed someone trustworthy they could talk with.  I have, along with other fellow teachers, purchased all kinds of things for needy students.  It’s what we do because we are oftentimes a student’s last resort.  I think it happens so much that these things are now expected of teachers.  Twenty years ago, when character education became a part of the elementary school curriculum, teachers were expected to teach foundational topics such as honesty, manners, responsibility, respect, fairness, and other concepts that used to be taught at home by parents.  Expectations to teach character lessons eventually lead to expectations to take care of students’ other personal and emotional needs.  It can be a taxing, stressful, lonely, and soul-wrenching profession sometimes.  But we do what we can to help students because it’s in our DNA.

This reminds me of an old Zen story that I leaned years ago.  A young monk and an old monk had just finished lunch and began washing their bowls in the nearby river.  As they cleaned their bowls, the old monk saw a scorpion drowning in the river.  The old man scooped him from the river and was stung on the hand in the process.  The old monk carefully placed the scorpion back by the river’s edge.  The scorpion soon returned to the water and began to drown.  Again, the old man was stung trying to scoop the scorpion from the river.  The monk, again, placed the scorpion gently by the river.  For a third time, the scorpion began to drown, and for a third time, the old man was stung as he scooped the scorpion from the river.  The young monk witnessed all of this.  He turned to the old man and said “Teacher, why don’t you just kill the scorpion?  Why do you continue to save it when you know that it is the scorpion’s nature to sting?”  The old monk replied “Because it is in my nature to save.”

Our teachers are constantly being stung by our public educational system.  And all of us, especially our children, are fortunate that it is in the teacer’s nature to save.




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